This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
To frustrated Americans who have begun boycotting BP, welcome to the club. It’s great not to be the only member anymore!
Does boycotting BP really make sense? Perhaps not. After all, many BP filling stations are actually owned by local people, not the corporation itself. Besides, when you’re filling up at a Shell or ExxonMobil station, it’s hard to feel much sense of moral triumph. Nonetheless, I reserve my right to drive by BP stations. I started doing it long before this year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
My decision not to give this company my business came after I learned about its role in another kind of "spill" entirely—the destruction of Iran’s democracy more than half a century ago.
The history of the company we now call BP has, over the last 100 years, traced the arc of transnational capitalism. Its roots lie in the early years of the twentieth century when a wealthy bon vivant named William Knox D’Arcy decided, with encouragement from the British government, to begin looking for oil in Iran. He struck a concession agreement with the dissolute Iranian monarchy, using the proven expedient of bribing the three Iranians negotiating with him.
Under this contract, which he designed, D’Arcy was to own whatever oil he found in Iran and pay the government just 16 percent of any profits he made—never allowing any Iranian to review his accounting. After his first strike in 1908, he became sole owner of the entire ocean of oil that lies beneath Iran’s soil. No one else was allowed to drill for, refine, extract or sell "Iranian" oil.
"Fortune brought us a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams," Winston Churchill, who became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, wrote later. "Mastery itself was the prize of the venture."
Soon afterward, the British government bought the D’Arcy concession, which it named the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. It then built the world’s biggest refinery at the port of Abadan on the Persian Gulf. From the 1920s into the 1940s, Britain’s standard of living was supported by oil from Iran. British cars, trucks and buses ran on cheap Iranian oil. Factories throughout Britain were fueled by oil from Iran. The Royal Navy, which projected British power all over the world, powered its ships with Iranian oil.
After World War II, the winds of nationalism and anticolonialism blew through the developing world. In Iran, nationalism meant one thing: we’ve got to take back our oil. Driven by this passion, Parliament voted on April 28, 1951, to choose its most passionate champion of oil nationalization, Mohammad Mossadegh, as prime minister. Days later, it unanimously approved his bill nationalizing the oil company. Mossadegh promised that, henceforth, oil profits would be used to develop Iran, not enrich Britain.